Battle of the phablets

Apple’s new iPhone 6 Plus (right) is going to spark some interesting changes in the smartphone market. Photo courtesy Apple.
Apple’s new iPhone 6 Plus (right) is going to spark some interesting changes in the smartphone market. Photo courtesy Apple.

BitDepth#955 for September 23

For the last six years or so, I’ve been an Android guy as far as smartphones go.

I’ve used Samsung’s devices specifically, from their shaky start as an iPhone challenger with the S1 through to the capable and competitive S4.

There’s a lot to like in Android. If you use Google, your phone becomes an effortless extension of everything that Google has to offer, from search to web apps.

Google open door to developers of all kinds results in an app store for Android that’s riddled with iffy software.

The steady growth in the availability of a much wider range of useful software for Android has helped, from the monolithic presence of Microsoft Office to tiny but important projects like Sunrise, which pulls your iCloud appointments into Google’s universe.

But let’s be honest here.

The Android app store can’t compare, particularly for creatives, to the thriving abundance of apps available for Apple’s iPhones.

At least part of the problem is the curious problem of Android fragmentation. OpenSignal reports that in August 2014, there were 18,000 individual Android devices in the market awaiting the attention of a potential developer.

Most of them can’t be upgraded to the current version of Android, so developers either target the most recent devices, leaving older phones and systems out in the cold or delay Android development in favour of software for iOS.

This is where the relative blandness of Apple’s product line offers its strongest market value, both for users and software developers.

Apple updates its iPhones on a cycle that runs between eight and ten months and maintains backward compatibility for roughly four generations.

That means that while iOS 8 really delivers for the new iPhone 6 models, it can be expected to run well on the 5s, 5c, 5 and 4s devices.

That 4s compatibility is a bit of a checklist item though. The Internet is currently a hotbed of complaints that the 4s becomes a turtle slogging through hot asphalt after the upgrade.

My own reaction suggests that the new releases, both software and hardware, will be just the wake-up call that Samsung needs right now.

For one thing, I’m looking very, very seriously at the iPhone 6 plus. It’s a honking big phone, but I’m a honking big person and if I invest in it, it won’t just be to use a phone, it will be to condense my need for a small tablet and a mobile communications device into one, admittedly large, box.

All the bells and whistles of Apple’s design and software ecosystem matter less to me than being able to work more comfortably on a device I can put in my pocket.

This is likely to be a consideration for other folks as well who are discovering that 4G connectivity, regardless of your carrier of choice, has quickly become a powerful enabler of responsiveness and connectivity.

Apple’s new phablet is a direct shot across the bow of Samsung’s Note series, a genre defining line of hefty phones that, to my surprise, I’ve been finding in the hands of quite several female executives who traditionally carry their phones in their handbags.

This is also where Apple needs to be ready to step into the future if the new device takes off. People who were waiting to buy an iPhone will buy one, but the Plus is a different market category that’s going to demand specific attention if it’s going to succeed.

If it does, Apple is one of the few companies with the capacity to scale to demand. The company reputedly can churn out 45 million iPhones per quarter, if the Plus takes off, Samsung, which also happens to one of those companies with production capacity, may find itself in an all out market war.

This is a far more likely possibility than even a skirmish in the smartwatch category, which remains unproven and experimental at best.

Samsung would do well to realise that this isn’t a battle that’s going to be won on specifications. The upcoming Note 4 will feature a slightly larger screen at 5.7 inches to Apple’s 5.5, higher screen pixel density, double the megapixels for the main camera and a processor that’s supposed to be faster.

Samsung’s Note series offers a bigger, more comfortable device for serious smartphone users, but the iPhone Plus is something else entirely for Apple, a product that’s likely to cannibalise iPad Mini sales and become more of a handheld computer than a phone. That’s likely to change the market perceptibly.

To meet that challenge, Samsung would be well advised to drop the crapware from their upscale devices.

With the time to see how the iPhone Plus is being used, they can make deals to pack the new Note with apps that will make it a real competitor in usability.

That’s going to be the terrain for the upcoming battle of the phablets.